Treasures Exposed: Rachel Coyne’s “Whiskey Heart”

By Seth Kelly
Contributing Writer

Apart from the winter-long battery of subzero days, winds that leave us gasping for air, and the ever-present threat of spring sending us up the river, most Fargo/Moorhead residents fully recognize the charms our respective cities do have. Magnificent parks and trails abound in every nook and cranny. Fresh-faced college students have developed a striving arts community, replete with a myriad of storefront galleries and music that carries out of open downtown doors late into the night.

As vibrant as this community has become, with art and music and theatre receiving deserved recognition, New Rivers Press, the first literary small press in the United States to receive nonprofit status, is not as well known regionally as it deserves. Started in 1968 by C.W. Truesdale, it is now over forty years old. As a publisher of enduring literature by up-and-coming writers, it proceeded to thrive in Minneapolis for thirty-plus years and was one of the original publishing houses of literary giants Charles Simic and Charles Baxter.

After Truesdale’s death, a mounting deficit caused it to go into suspension and to look for a partner who might save it.  It found a new home and structure at MSUM in 2001. Professors there revived the wilting press by acquiring generous grants from the McKnight and Jerome Foundations, and set off into generally unchartered and untested waters.  The goal was simple, yet experimental: to create only the second teaching press in the country.  The results have been phenomenal.

Adding to already well-respected Mass Communications and English Departments, MSUM gained even more esteem as only the second university to undertake the development of a teaching press. Students are completely involved in running an independent press. Under the attentive eyes of faculty, the most experienced among them assist in whittling down hundreds upon hundreds of manuscripts to arrive at the chosen four or five per year. They diligently edit, design, produce, market, fundraise, and prepare these works for distribution, all the while developing skills unavailable in most American universities.

Their annual Many Voices Project series, in particular, is designed to publish emerging writers and discover another Simic or Baxter. But who and when? As a press whose main purpose is to publish up-and-comers, perhaps they already have. Rachel Coyne’s novel Whiskey Heart was published last year, and although small presses have a limited initial audience, it has triggered a lot of buzz. Her prose, starkly contemplative and sensual, beckons the reader on with unexpected enthusiasm for a story about uncovered family strife.

Its protagonist, Kat, finds herself revisiting her family farmstead in eastern Minnesota nine years after leaving without the intention of coming back. Family mysteries and secrets are revealed fluidly in rapid-paced scenes that pull Kat and the reader further and further into a spiral of dizzying realizations. Family truths are unearthed with archaeological precision, Coyne’s deft and economic prose solidifying their value.

Like many other gifted writers, Coyne draws inspiration from her experiences. In a recent interview, she told me that writing “kept me company all through my childhood and I think kept me sane in very real ways. I didn’t stumble upon the themes of my novel by accident.”

Not surprisingly, she lists Hemingway and the Brontes among her influences: “Reading Hemingway at a young age taught me that you don’t need a lot of words to say something powerful. I like the way he says things. I like the way his images stick with you and how they are constructed. More than anything, though, I love the Brontes—there’s a richness to their work, a singularity that haunts me.” One can easily locate traces of Hemingway’s precision in “Whiskey Heart,” and the richness that she sees in the work of the Bronte sisters has been reinvented for her unsullied, modern take on one collapsing Minnesotan family.

On Tuesday, March 30, Rachel Coyne will lead a talk about the writer’s craft at 4:00, and read from her work at 8:00, both at MSUM’s Comstock Memorial Union in Room 101. The event is part of the Tom McGrath Visiting Writers Series, and is open to the general public.
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If You Go

What: Rachel Coyne
Where: MSUM Comstock Memorial Union
When: Tues, March 30, 4 and 8 pm
Info: 218.477.2261


Posted 4 years, 5 months ago by Seth Kelly | Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | View Seth Kelly's profile.

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